SMK's publications

Building a commons for digital cultural heritage


The vision behind Europeana is vast in scope: to create a common access point to Europe’s digitised cultural heritage, and make it public property for all internet users. In 2012, an important step was taken as the complete aggregated dataset was handed over to the Public Domain, enabling everyone to freely re-use the rich data about history, art, literature, music, film, design, and fashion, generated by Europe’s cultural heritage institutions. In this article, Jill discusses Europeana’s next step: to turn the digitised cultural heritage of Europe into a ‘commons’ of high quality digitised works, as well as tools and services which everyone can freely use, and for which we are all responsible.

Europeana brings together the digitised content of Europe’s galleries, libraries, museums, archives and audiovisual collections. Currently, Europeana gives access to 30 million books, films, paintings, museum objects and archival documents from 2,300 content providers, brought together by aggregation initiatives and multi-partner projects. Europeana has at its heart the goal of creating new ways for people to engage with their cultural history, whether it’s for work, learning or pleasure. Making cultural heritage openly accessible in a digital way, and promoting the exchange of ideas and information, helps us all to understand our cultural diversity better and contributes to a thriving knowledge economy.

The Europeana vision is gigantic in scope and is already achieving notable successes, like the release of Europeana metadata under a CC0 waiver*1, making it re-usable both commercially and non-commercially. To fully deliver its potential, a real multiplier effect is required – what is currently a network needs to become a movement.

The Europeana Network has over 900 members representing the cultural heritage and digital technology sectors, and we have partners and content providers from every EU member state. All of these people work with us, with each other and with organisations outside of our sphere, and all are developing Europeana for the benefit of the European public and beyond. We therefore have to ask the question – how can we best manage this process and the resource we are creating?

To date, we have been driven by the need to aggregate – we needed to get content in. Now, we are looking much more at distribution – getting content out to end-users and to re-users such as Wikipedians, software and app developers, schools and creative industries. The release of metadata under a CC0 waiver frees us up to make data available according to ‘Linked Open Data’ principles.*2 This means that anyone can integrate Europeana metadata and searches into their websites and apps, it allows our data to be integrated and re-used on other sites such as HistoryPin and Wikipedia, and it opens the door for commercial re-use. Whilst this is all great news, the original Europeana model is one-directional, pushing information towards users, and doesn’t fit with this new vision of extended distribution. There is not enough of a sense of shared ownership and cooperation – users themselves do not play an active role in the governance structure. [1]


[1] The ‘push’ Europeana governance model.

[1] The ‘push’ Europeana governance model.

A cultural commons for Europe

In March 2012, we asked ourselves whether Europeana could be organised with a ‘commons’ approach, creating a true ‘Cultural Commons’ for Europe, with all content providers, Europeana Network members, and end-users acting as a single community that is mutually reinforcing and constantly finding innovative ways of engaging new user groups with content. By structuring Europeana as a cultural commons, could we achieve our shared goal of connecting Europe’s public to their culture?

To consider this, we first need to understand the principles of a commons structure. Think of a village green or fresh water – things we all enjoy, that belong to no-one, or rather, that belong to everyone, and for which we all share responsibility. We do not dig up the village green, nor do we deposit our waste into the nearest reservoir. Why not? Because we know that by looking after a shared resource for others, we maintain its use for ourselves.

According to Charlotte Hess, a commons is “a general concept that refers to a resource shared by a group of people” (Hess, 2007) and it provides “a new way of looking at what is shared or should be shared in the world around us. It focuses on collective action and the importance of understanding who shares what, how we share it and how we sustain commons for future generations.” (Hess, 2008)

Natural resources are obvious candidates for a commons governance structure, but others have also emerged in more varied fields, e.g. research commons like the ArXiv repository for sharing academic papers*3, or education commons at the University of Manchester*4 and University of Illinois.*5 Other cultural commons include Citilab, a collaborative digital culture initiative in Barcelona, and the Digital Public Space – “an online space in which much of the UK’s publicly-held cultural and heritage media assets and data could be found.” (Berger, 2011)

If we are to think of digital cultural heritage as commons material, we must see digital representations of artwork, writing, music and film, and the metadata behind them, as shared public resources that we all have an interest in both accessing and maintaining. But looking at it in this way leads to some difficult questions:

“If consumers have the right to access and participate in their culture, how can we deliver a cultural offer that is best-suited to the needs and expectations of an always-connected, always-on, multi-platform digital world? What would this mean for our institutions and their positioning in the cultural landscape (...)? How can digitisation add further value to the traditional activities of acquiring, preserving and serving content to the end-user? Is there an opportunity for new types of relationship with private enterprises in the cultural sector, supported by some form of open content (...)? How would such products and services relate to the commercial offer of publishers and other content companies?”*6

Answering these questions will take time, but the anticipated reward motivates us to aim high – if we can create a European cultural commons, we can make our content available to the creative industries, to those developers and innovators who have skills that we do not. As Michael Edson puts it, the idea is that “when creators are allowed free and unrestricted access to the work of others, through the public domain, fair use, a commons, or other means, innovation flourishes” (Edson, 2009). The publications, apps, websites and games developed will be brand-new uses of cultural heritage content, which can be fed back to the cultural heritage domains (galleries, libraries, archives, museums), bringing in new users and generating jobs and economic growth from which we all benefit. [2]

We have already made significant progress. A ‘Task Force’ has investigated the notion of a cultural commons and discussed what it might look like. Through a series of workshops with European policy-makers from Ministries of Culture and Education and the Member States Expert Group of DG Connect*7, and several meetings of the Europeana Network, the Task Force arrived at five principles for the governance of a European Cultural Commons.

[2] A distribution-based Europeana governance model.

[2] A distribution-based Europeana governance model.

Five principles for a European Cultural Commons

1.  Mutuality: Create a community based on the ideas of achieving mutual benefit, acting in good faith and presuming it on behalf of others.
2.  Access: Provide high-quality re-usable content, tools and services to enable creativity and innovation.
3.  Attribution: Commit to respecting intellectual property rights/copyrights through acknowledgement and attribution.
4.  Consistency: Build on the existing values and principles of our sector.
5.  Engagement: Members of the community should commit to use the commons proactively and to contribute to it.

We view a commons as much more than just content. It’s about how all involved can act together, how we agree on protocols, share technology, and how we work together on things like rights labelling. What content we can make available depends on the circumstances our commons creates. Three commons pilots will test these principles, finding out what works, what doesn’t and what needs negotiating. The emphasis in a commons is on collaboration and community, and now we must practise what we preach.

The pilots will report their experiences to the Cultural Commons Task Force, who will share findings and discussions with the Europeana Network as a whole.

Europeana Cloud

The first pilot is an infrastructure commons and is part of Europeana Cloud, a three-year project that kicked-off in March 2013. Europeana Cloud will ingest 2.4m metadata records and 5m digitised objects into Europeana, placing the content and all metadata in a cloud-based infrastructure for better access and sustainability. It explores the potential of cloud computing technologies, putting in place an infrastructure for the use of Europeana and anyone else wishing to access the content and tools that it stores. The project will apply the principles of a cultural commons to a cloud-based technology infrastructure, focusing on the governance, legal and economic aspects that will inevitably confront us. This pilot will put the building blocks in place for the establishment of an infrastructure commons for the benefit of the whole Europeana ecosystem. By applying the principles, we hope to work out how to overcome some of the difficulties faced by cultural heritage institutions in the sharing of content and tools.

Europeana Research

Also within Europeana Cloud is our second pilot – a research commons. Europeana Research is a service for researchers in the humanities and social sciences to make use of data, content and tools and to contribute new research to the platform. The aim is to apply the commons principles to a service for a specific audience – researchers. The idea is that many content providers who are worried about commercial use of their content would be happy to consider research use. The pilot will give us a better understanding of the issues facing content providers when making their content freely available to a defined set of users and might increase the number of people and organisations who contribute content. We will explore how to release content to a research audience, e.g. whole corpuses of texts that couldn’t previously be made freely available. This will lay the foundations for the construction of a shared research environment to support the European Research Area,*8 based on commons principles.

Europeana Creative

The final pilot is a cultural tourism commons, and is part of the Europeana Creative project, which began in February 2013. Cultural heritage organisations and developers will work with tourism providers and commercial companies to look at re-using content so that tourists can find out about places, monuments and people. This potentially enhances the contributing institutions’ public presence and relevance on the internet. For this pilot, only providers comfortable with working in this way will be approached.

As Europeana Cloud and Europeana Creative have both started, we are on the verge of turning what has been, up to now, a purely theoretical discussion into a practical application of commons thinking. We will undoubtedly be challenged and discover problems as yet unknown, but we will learn and adapt, keeping firmly in mind our goal of enabling the public to access their cultural heritage freely. We vow to stand by and develop our village green, encouraging people to use it, play on it, picnic on it, and preserve it for all Europeans both today and in the future.

This article is co-written with Beth Daley, PR & Editorial Officer, Europeana.


*1  Europeana opens up full dataset for re-use,

*2  Europeana Linked Open Data (LOD),




*6  Europeana Network Officers, 2012.

*7  The European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content & Technology

*9  European Research Area, European Commission,


Berger, Jake, Digital Public Space: Turning a Big Idea in to a Big Thing, 14 October 2011, accessed 25 March 2013.

Edson, Michael, Imagining a Smithsonian Commons, 2009, Smithsonian Institution, 31 March 2009, accessed 25 March 2013,

Europeana Network Officers, A Cultural Commons for Europe: Discussion Paper, marts 2012, March 2012, accessed 25 March 2013.

Hess, Charlotte; Ostrom, Elinor (Eds), Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007.

Hess, Charlotte; Mapping the Commons, 12th Biennial Conference of the Inter- national Association for the Study of the Commons, University of Gloucestershire, 14-18 July 2008.

Updated: 26.apr.2018
Webmaster: Webmaster
SMK Logo